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A lost generation

12 January 2018

Many congregations have fewer than five under-16s. The Church has failed to retain the children and grandchildren of its members, says David Voas


For every 100 adults aged 18-34 in England, only one is an active Anglican

For every 100 adults aged 18-34 in England, only one is an active Anglican

MY JOB is to count people. I am particularly interested in counting people who belong to a church. I’m afraid that this task requires fewer fingers than formerly.

No one wants to hear another prophecy of doom, and Christians are right to enter into a new year with energy, optimism, and faith. It is hard to succeed if you don’t believe that you can. I would like, though, to underline one of the most important findings of research on religious change.

Bringing people back to church will not be simply a matter of gathering up believers who have fallen by the wayside. The Early Church grew rapidly through conversion, and the same has occurred from time to time since, but it would be unwise to rely on a big revival. Recent history suggests that gains and losses during adulthood are roughly in balance. The challenge is to retain the new generation, and churches have not done that.

In 2005, I wrote an article suggesting that institutional religion in Britain had a half-life of one generation, to borrow the terminology of radioactive decay. People are only half as likely as their parents to attend church, to say that they have a religion, or to assert that belief is important to them. Non-religious parents are highly successful at producing non-religious children; so nearly all change is away from Christianity. (Muslim families are good at retention, because faith and identity are important to them, but that is another story.)

This position continues. The British Social Attitudes survey gives us data of much higher quality than opinion polls; and combining the last two years available (2015 and 2016) further improves the sample. Nearly three-quarters of people aged 75 and above identify with one or other branch of Christianity, compared with a quarter of young adults aged 18-24 (News, 1 September).


THE Church of England has fared particularly poorly. When answering the question “Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?”, 43 per cent of people in England aged 75 and over said “Church of England” or “Anglican”. By contrast, fewer than five per cent of adult respondents below the age of 35 — in effect, their grandchildren — said the same. Of those, fewer than a quarter said that they attended church at least monthly. For every 100 people in England aged 18-34, only one is an active Anglican.

While we all know individuals who enter or leave the Church as adults, net change within any given generation is small. On average, people experience little change in their religious beliefs and practices once they reach their early twenties. Churchgoers in their twenties will probably continue to attend for the rest of their lives — but if they never acquired the habit on entering adulthood, it will be hard to bring them in.

Teenage religious involvement, then, is critical. Most churchgoing parents bring their young children to church. The issue is what happens in the transitional period of adolescence and young adulthood, and whether the Church can do better at retaining them.


YOUTH FOR CHRIST commissioned a survey of young people aged 11-18 in the autumn of 2016. They found that 32 per cent of those questioned believed in God, and 59 per cent of these answered “Yes” to the question “Would you consider yourself a follower of Jesus and the Christian faith/religion?” Although this form of words must have seemed peculiar to teenagers, the findings do not seem out of line with what we know from elsewhere.

A ComRes poll in December 2016 of the same age-group produced more surprising figures (News, 23 June 2017). Out of the respondents, 41 per cent described themselves as Christian, which is not unusual; more remarkably, however, half these self-identified Christians said that they attended church monthly, or more often; half were willing to be called “an active Christian who follows Jesus”; and 36 per cent said that they read the Bible (or listened to it being read) weekly, or more often.

These results seem inconsistent with what we know about youth involvement. The diocese of London is often held up as an outstanding success story in the C of E, and yet its own research suggests that fewer than 2000 young people aged 11-18 appear in church there (News, 6 July). Given that 8.6 per cent of London’s population is in that age group, then of the 3.6 million people living in the diocese, around 310,000 will be 11-18. Of course, only half are Christian (even in a broad sense), and only a fraction of Christians are Anglicans, but, even so, the disparity is striking.

It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the ComRes sample was unrepresentative, and hence that the findings do not describe the general population. Potential survey respondents are inclined to participate or not depending on their interest in the topic, and religious commitment cannot be measured if people who are indifferent decline to be counted. Access to children requires parental consent, which means that there is a two-fold risk of selection bias. Whatever the explanation, it seems clear that there was a problem.


IT IS possible to interpret the findings more generously. Perhaps the respondents heard Bible readings at school, and think of themselves as being practising Christians. If we accept the findings at face value, they would imply that the point at which most young people are lost to the Church comes during early adulthood rather than childhood. Many children and adolescents still have some association with the Church. Generational replacement is breaking down at the point where young people are making their own decisions about what to do.

An important reason that the Church has not done well at keeping the children and grandchildren of its members is that parents do not like to talk about religion. In my report for the Church Growth Research Programme, in 2014, I wrote: “We might naturally suppose that people who say that religion is very important in their own lives would include religious faith in their list of qualities that are especially important for children to learn at home. In fact, however, only 36 per cent do so.

“Of the much larger number who say that religion is ‘quite important’ to them, a mere ten per cent mention faith as something important for their children to acquire. Among Anglicans who say that they attend services at least once a month, the figure is 28 per cent. In other words, even religious Anglicans seem surprisingly reluctant to make inculcation of religion a priority in child-rearing.” These findings — from the European Values Study — are corroborated by more recent research from the think tank Theos (News, 4 November 2016).

In the 2014 reports, we pointed out that teenagers were conspicuous by their absence from the pews: nearly a half of churches had fewer than five under-16s (News, 17 January 2014). It is easier to minister to the older generation that attends than to the younger generation that does not, but failing to retain young people is a recipe for slow death.

What can be done? The Capital Youth project (News, 6 July) is one to watch. The Revd Graham Hunter, one of London’s “youth advocates”, is a rising star, and someone with small-c charisma in abundance. If anyone can make a difference, I would put my money on him — although I would still want good odds. (Full disclosure: I belong to his parish, but do not attend services there.)

The Church of England has not done well at keeping the children and grandchildren of its members, and contemporary society offers many competing distractions. It is going to be a challenge.


Professor David Voas is the head of the Department of Social Science at UCL, and co-director of British Religion in Numbers.

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